Sunday, August 9, 2015


Peter Meineck, David Konstan (ed.), Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks. The New Antiquity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. xiv, 310. ISBN 9781137398857. $90.00.

Reviewed by Bernd Steinbock, University of Western Ontario (

Version at BMCR home site


Twenty-one years ago, Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist, working with Vietnam veterans with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), made a strong case for the timeless nature of war-induced psychological trauma by pointing to Homer's Iliad.1 Shay saw in Achilles the archetype of the combat soldier who, after experiencing first the betrayal of what is right by his commander and then the loss of his closest brother-in-arms, falls into a berserk rage – a pattern familiar to him from the accounts of his patients. In the sequel Odysseus in America, Shay pointed to the need to communalize trauma and suggested that Athenian tragic theater – "which was a theater of combat veterans, by combat veterans, and for combat veterans" – offered a form of "cultural therapy"2 for an audience traumatized by the effects of war (xii). Shay's hypothesis became the basis for the immensely successful national public program Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives, which – spearheaded by Aquila Theatre and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities – brought together the American veteran community and the public at one hundred sites across the United States. It featured staged readings of ancient Greek tragedy and epic, moderated by scholars and followed by town hall style meetings, which explored how war affects soldiers, their families and society at large.

Yet the Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program was not a one-way street. Struck by the extraordinary resonance of these ancient Greek texts with modern audiences, participating scholars returned to the ancient texts and, equipped with our present-day understanding of war-induced psychological trauma, examined the potential manifestation, identification and reactions to combat trauma in ancient Greece. The results are now available in Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks, a collected volume of thirteen papers, written by experts in various fields of Greek culture (Homeric epic, military history, material culture, philosophy, tragedy and comedy) and jointly edited by the director of the Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program, Peter Meineck, and the key-note speaker of the preceding conference, David Konstan.

Combat or war trauma is used in this volume as shorthand for the full range of adverse psychological reactions to combat (cf. 98), including "severe, persistent, and disabling anxiety commonly known as 'posttraumatic stress disorder' (PTSD)" (134). The greatest strength of this engaging book is that it does not simply transfer the modern concept of combat trauma wholesale to the ancient world, but truly grapples with the question whether such a transfer is indeed justified. At the center of this book are, therefore, three interrelated questions (xi-xii): (1) Do ancient Greek works reflect universal aspects of warfare and its psychological after-effects? (2) If so, were the ancient Greeks aware of what is now called combat trauma? And (3) are there any particular responses to combat trauma in ancient Greek culture that address, mitigate or even prevent its devastating effects (xi-xii)? Since it is impossible in this limited space to review each chapter comprehensively, I focus my discussion on these three main questions.

In his thought-provoking introduction (1-13) David Konstan puts his finger on the central problem, i.e. "the apparent absence of a concern with combat trauma" (8) in ancient Greek culture. Unlike many contemporary veterans suffering from PTSD, Achilles does not show any such symptoms at the end of the Iliad. Moreover, from the ancient Greek point of view, an episode of manic battle frenzy is not a sign of a mental disorder, but an aristeia, i.e. "the highest manifestation of a fighter's excellence" (4). What are we to make of this paradox? Were ancient Greek soldiers somehow immune to developing post-traumatic symptoms? Is the whole concept of PTSD a purely modern phenomenon?

Two chapters in this volume tackle this problem head-on and provide antithetical answers. Lawrence Tritle, a Vietnam War combat veteran and pioneer of ancient Greek trauma studies, deserves credit for having identified the most compelling cases of PTSD in ancient Greece (87-103): Epizelus' hysterical blindness (Hdt. 6.117), Aristodemus' survivor guilt (Hdt. 7.229; 9.71-73), Gorgias' description of the psychological trauma suffered by battle survivors (Helen 16-17), and Clearchus' war-addiction (Xen. An. 2.6.1-15). Tritle also delves into neuroscience, evolutionary biology and biochemistry to support his longstanding argument for the "universality of trauma" (97) by pointing to the continuity of human biology over the last 150,000 years.

Rejecting Tritle's universalizing "retrospective diagnoses" (105), Jason Crowley reminds us that PTSD "results from the interaction of two variables, namely the human being and his or her environment" (106). After analyzing both the societal values and the social, tactical and technological environments of the classical Athenian hoplite and the twentieth-century American infantryman (105-130), Crowley concludes that the latter shows "a profound propensity for PTSD" (111), whereas the former "was effectively immunized against the same risk" (117) thanks to both a fully internalized, unbridled militaristic value system and the social comfort and close tactical support inherent in the Athenian hoplite phalanx. Crowley's emphasis on the historical and cultural contingency of combat trauma has many merits and deserves further investigation; yet, his insistence on the complete absence of any kind of combat trauma in classical Athens flies in the face of the psychologically debilitating effects of war depicted on the Athenian tragic stage (e.g. Ajax' suicide, Philoctetes' social isolation, etc.). The Athenians' attitudes to the social and psychological costs of war were more nuanced than Crowley, with his rather one-dimensional Athenian fighting machines, wants us to believe.

All of the other chapters are based on the premise that the ancient Greeks were indeed aware of the psychologically damaging impact of war, even if they did not construct anything akin to the "modern psychiatric diagnosis" (135). Five contributors (Race, De Vivo, Monoson, Sherman, James) identify and analyze specific responses to combat trauma found in Greek literature and material culture that could affect healing or at least mitigating the psychological damage.

Correcting Shay's negative characterization of the Phaeacians as "rich tourists in the landscape of suffering" (2002: 16), William Race views their island "as a kind of idealized halfway house" (47) where the war-weary Odysseus begins the process of rehabilitation (47-66). Alcinous provides the struggling veteran not only with basic physical necessities, but (like a good therapist) betrays a deep understanding of Odysseus' emotional breakdown (Od. 8.521-531) and aids him in coming to terms with his troubling war experiences by encouraging him to endure recounting his woes. By solidly grounding Shay's approach in contemporary Homeric literary criticism, Race offers a most convincing analysis of Odysseus' psychological state at Alcinous' court and strongly affirms the volume's hypothesis that the Greeks understood the terrible effects of war on the soul and knew effective ways to respond to them.

Juan Sebastian De Vivo explores how Greek hoplites, whose vision and hearing were severely restricted by the Corinthian helmet, managed to come to terms with the terrifying and chaotic experience of hoplite battle (163-184). He makes the sensible argument that the tropaion, i.e. the communal victory monument erected on the battlefield, enabled the individual hoplite "to fix the event into an intelligible narrative" (178): "we were, I was, victorious" (177). His further claim that this simple narrative of victory both justified and mitigated (175, 177-179) or even erased (164) the trauma soldiers had experienced, seems plausible enough, but it raises the question: what about the losers, how did they cope with their seemingly pointless suffering? By failing to address this other side of victory, De Vivo has weakened his case and missed an opportunity.

Sara Monoson sheds light on an underappreciated aspect of the Platonic Socrates, i.e. his extraordinary resilience as a combat veteran (131-162). By marking the ease with which Socrates moved between war zones and home as exceptional, Plato betrayed a keen awareness of the disabling stress and psychological damage of intense military service. Drawing on the Republic, Monoson shows conclusively that Plato saw the remedy for war trauma not in the "communalization of trauma" at Athens' dramatic festivals, but in "the cultivation of resilience through rational self-examination, deliberation, and storytelling" (152). Yet, Nancy Sherman's perceptive reading of Sophocles' Philoctetes as a case study of moral injury and a lesson in how to build trust and trustworthiness from the ground up (207-224) makes one wonder whether Plato perhaps underestimated the trauma therapy offered by Greek tragedy. Just as Tritle's and Crowley's cases for and against PTSD in ancient Greece should be read side by side, so should Alan Sommerstein's (225-236) and Sharon James' (237-260) chapters on combat trauma in Greek comedy. While Sommerstein concludes his survey with the sobering verdict that the true horrors of war "are a taboo subject" in Old and New Comedy and as such "always either avoided or defused" (234), James contends that in Menander's Aspis war trauma "takes center stage" (253). How can we explain such contradictory interpretations of the very same play (compare Sommerstein's (230-234) discussion of Aspis to that of James)? The answer lies in the assumptions (concerning genre, life in 4th-century Athens, etc.) that we as readers bring to these texts. Noting the lack of graphic details familiar from Greek tragedy, Sommerstein dismisses Daos' brief mentioning of the bloated (and thus unrecognizable) faces of his fallen comrades (Aspis 70-72) as "simply a plot device" (233), whereas James – through the lens of trauma studies – sees in this image a clear indication of Daos' confrontation "with one of the great horrors of war: an indiscriminate pile of bodies" (244). In the end, I found James' close reading largely convincing. By depicting – in subtle ways – survivor guilt and postwar family trauma on the comic stage, Menander created a space for personal catharsis for those viewers who had experienced such a traumatic loss themselves: the happy ending offered a comforting wish-fulfillment, "a fantasy of family rescue and reintegration" (237).

Since war effects combatants and non-combatants alike, it is fitting that two chapters focus on war's impact on women. Nancy Rabinowitz examines the representation of women as traumatized victims in Greek tragedy (185-206), both those left behind (Clytemnestra, Deianeira, Megara) and those taken captive by the enemy (Tecmessa, Iole, Polyxena). Corinne Pache illuminates the often marginalized or suppressed issue of female heroism (67-85), by juxtaposing Penelope's traumatic struggles (expressed implicitly by the poet through the lion simile in Od. 4.787-794) with the trials of homecoming experienced by the members of "Team Lioness," the first female U.S. soldiers sent into direct ground combat in Iraq.

Drawing on comparative material, the last two essays provide convincing explanations for the extraordinary resonance of Homer and Greek tragedy with contemporary veterans and the therapeutic role of theater, respectively. Artistic representations of war endure across the ages, if they eschew all sentimentality and are instead "direct, blunt, matter-of-fact, clear of vision, sincere, urgent, deep of feeling, and humane" (275), as Thomas Palaima's perceptive analysis of Homer's Iliad, Euripides' Trojan Women, Johnny Cash's "Drive On," Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," and others demonstrates (261-285).

Paul Woodruff's very personal and moving essay illustrates different ways of dealing with the memory of traumatic loss (287-299). Both Euripides' Electra's refusal to forget and Mrs. Alving's willful amnesia in Ibsen's Ghosts are dead-ends. Woodruff, haunted himself by the memory of two soldiers he was unable to save from a battlefield in Vietnam, found relief in creative writing and performing on stage. By playing a role very close to their own and by expressing things which one would normally not dare to say, traumatized veterans can release troubling memories (293). Theatrical performances are indeed therapeutic.

The volume is well produced and contains very few typographical errors. The authors fully succeed in their mission to provide "a multiplicity of differing viewpoints" on combat trauma in ancient Greece and to "create a vibrant thread of dialogue throughout the chapters" (xii). Regrettably, this back-and-forth dialogue is hard to track, since there is no index locorum and the very patchy general index offers little help. Yet these minor quibbles do not detract from the overall excellence of this volume. For scholars and students of Classics, this book provides first-rate snapshots of the current state of ancient Greek trauma studies and shows the way for further research in this exciting new field. Thanks to Kurt Raaflaub's superb introductory chapter on ancient Greek warfare (15-46) and the contextualization and translation of all the discussed texts, the book is also quite accessible to the interested public. After more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East with more than 2.7 million returning veterans in the United States alone – not to speak of the veterans of allied nations and the indigenous populations of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – one hopes that this insightful book on combat trauma finds the wide readership that it deserves.


1.   Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York 1994).
2.   Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (New York 2002), 152-153.


  1. I read this commentary twice -- totally intriguing and fascinating. What an excellent window into what sounds like an amazing and enlightening view into these timeless issues regarding war and its aftermath. I have been close to Peter Meineck's work and I know Peter's dedication to the material at hand. For myself as a combat veteran of the Vietnam war and as a theatre artist, I have delved deeply into the same questions and expressions described in this commentary of the realities of war and what is possible in our psyche in order to come to grips with learning how to transform those horrors into a new humanity. I am eager to read the book! Thank you Mr.Steinbock for being so thorough and clear with your analysis. One last thought, I believe the ancient Greeks may not have had a handle like PTSD to objectify the condition, but they were keenly aware that combat or 'the limits of human experience' needed significant rituals -- purification or restoration scenarios -- to humanize the soldiers into a new normalcy. And theatre allows the primal realities to be languaged, expressed and then purged to create a communal healing. My very best wishes for Peter Meineck's and David Konstan's book to reach readers far and wide. Thank you, Brian Delate

  2. Somewhat related, the excellent novel about Thermopylae and the Spartan military culture, Gates of Fire (by Steven Pressfield) does address in passing the impact of combat trauma, and how at least one Greek army dealt with it.

  3. This is a topic of great interest and it would be interesting to hear resonance and reflections on the subject from Europe, Russia, Japan and Korea. There is a tendency following Jason Crowley to be in denial of the entire phenomenon. It would also be pertinent to extend the field to depression with comparisons in ancient and modern literature.